Wealth

This is the last in a series where we take an area of life to the Bible to see what God has to say about it. This morning, it's wealth: money and what it can buy, and what it represents. There are basically two problems with wealth. One is having it. The other is not having it. Or at least thinking we haven't got enough. The problem with having it is that it can become an idol. The problem with not having it (or thinking we haven't got enough) is that it becomes a source of anxiety. Well, in vv19-24, the Lord Jesus tackles the problem of wealth becoming our idol. And in vv25-34, the problem of wealth becoming a source of anxiety. So first, SERVE GOD WITH YOUR WEALTH, NOT WEALTH AS YOUR GOD (vv19-24) The first problem is: having wealth. The problem is that instead of using wealth to serve God, we can begin to live for wealth as if it was god. It's the issue of idolatry. Verse 19:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. (vv19-20)

The world around us says this. 'Store up for yourselves treasures on earth. This world is all that exists and when you die, you cease to exist. So, try to gain as much as you can in this life because it's the only life you've got.' That view is called materialism. And it leads to the lifestyle of trying to better ourselves. And the key words, as the marketing people will tell you, are 'bigger', 'better' and 'new'. And there's a ladder of progress which we're expected to climb throughout life. Take accommodation, for example. We expect to begin roughing it - as students or lodgers, maybe. But then we're expected to share a nicer place. Then rent our own place. Then buy. Then do it up. Then get something with a bigger garden and a garage. And so on. And there's a ladder like that for everything: cars, hifi, food, clothes, holidays, leisure. And alongside those spending ladders runs a savings ladder. It bears no relation to what we need to save. We're just expected to save as much as we can, because money is security and money is future happiness. So they say. That's what the Lord means when he talks about 'stor[ing] up for yourselves treasures on earth' (v19). And he says, verse 19:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal... No-one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. (vv19-20, 24)

So, we need to remember two things when thinking about wealth and financial planning. Not interest rates and inflation. But: God (v24) and heaven (v20). Start with God. We need to remember that he made us and made everything we have. So, the truth is: we own nothing. The proof of that will be the day we die. Because we will take absolutely nothing with us beyond the grave (see Job 1.21). An American oil millionaire had died and two friends were overheard at the graveside. 'So how much did he actually leave?' whispered one of them. To which the other replied: 'Oh, everything.' A very wise answer. The things we call 'mine' actually belong to God. According to Genesis we're just caretakers (Genesis 2.15, see also 1.26-31; Psalm 8). Just looking after them and seeing that they're used how God wants them to be used. So, for example, a house is not just 'my home'; it's a God-given resource for hospitality to others. A car is not just 'my private bus'; it's a God-given resource for giving others lifts. And so on, for all our possessions. The other thing we need to remember is: heaven. Materialism is a lie. The teaching of the Lord Jesus and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus tell us there is life after death. And if we've trusted in his death to save us through judgement when we ourselves die, then in 5, 10, 20, 50 years - whatever it is for you or me - we'll be with him in heaven. If we belong to Christ, we are going to spend eternity in a place where our lot will be unimaginably bettered. But the Bible does give us an advanced glimpse of what the quality of life will be. Revelation 21:

He showed me the Holy City It shone with the glory of God and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel... It had a great high wall with twelve gates The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of pure gold, like transparent glass. (Revelation 21.10-12, 21)

Streets of gold! Here we worship it. There they walk on it. It's a picture in words of a place where we'll be unimaginably bettered for eternity. So we don't need to make it our goal to better ourselves here and now. Verse 19:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven... (vv19-20)

Jesus is not saying that the right use of wealth will earn a place in heaven. He's saying: If you know God has accepted you now, through forgiveness, and promised you heaven, then use your wealth accordingly. We're to serve God here with our wealth, knowing that its his, and knowing we have heaven to come. In verses 19-24, the Lord is saying: there are two ways to use wealth. As a materialist, verse 19, or as a believer, verse 20. Then, verse 21, there are two things my heart can be set on when using my wealth: my interests or the Lord's. Verses 22-23, there are two ways of looking at wealth: as mine or as God's. In fact, verse 24, either God or my wealth will ultimately master me, my priorities and my decisions. And Jesus says: Serve God with your wealth, not wealth as your god. So, how do we do that? Well, I recommend a set of Bible studies called Cash Values (St Matthias Press). I've worked through them this week. Let me highlight four areas in which the Bible tells us to use our wealth. The first area is: meeting our own needs and responsibilities (eg: 1 Timothy 5.8). God is concerned that our own needs, and the needs of our dependants (children, elderly parents, relatives, etc), are met. And he gives us wealth partly so we can meet those needs. But one of the hardest things, being Christians in the west, is knowing our needs from our luxuries. One African student I know said that, having been here, he could see why so many Africans who come here to study return so materialistic. We need to be very honest with ourselves before the Lord, and keep asking the question, 'Do we really need this? Is this a need or is it a luxury?' God is concerned about our needs, present and future. So, Proverbs tells us to save (eg: Proverbs 6.6-11, 21.20). But again, we need to ask ourselves the question, 'What do we need to save?' The world around us tells us to save as much as we can. The more the better for that globe-trotting early retirement in the Prudential adverts - you know: the silvery-haired couple striding along the Grand Canyon. 'Save as much as you can,' says the world. 'It's security. It's potential future happiness.' But it's also ungodly. The Bible does encourage us to save, not as much as we can, but as much as we need. The second area for using our wealth is: helping the poor (eg: Proverbs 14.31, 19.17). The Bible is full of our responsibility to give to or share with the poor. A recent World Bank report says that 1/5 of the world's population live 'in absolute poverty: a condition of life so characterised by malnutrition, illiteracy, disease, squalid surroundings, high infant mortality and low life expectancy as to be beneath any reasonable definition of human decency.' Meanwhile, at the other end of the wealth spectrum, 1/5 of the world's population consume 4/5 of the world's resources. That's us. Another report, this time just on the UK, said, 'perhaps as many as one in every five live on the margins of poverty or below the threshold of an acceptable standard of living.' Now, nationally, there is a welfare system into which we pay taxes. And internationally, there is government aid and the United Nations. And we should think on behalf of the poor when voting in elections. But throughout the Bible, the Lord does call us to use our own wealth to relieve poverty. And we mustn't become paralysed by the overwhelming sum total of need out there. God isn't calling you or me to take responsibility for that sum total of need. He is calling you and me to take responsibility for that sum total in our bank accounts. 1 Timothy 6.17-18

Command those who are rich in this present world [that's us] not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.

And James 4.13-5.9 is essential - and sobering - reading for rich Christians. The third area for using our wealth is: supporting the ministry of the gospel (eg: 1 Timothy 5.17-18, 1 Corinthians 9.3-15, Philippians 4.14-18). In the Bible, the Lord calls on us, in proportion to our income (see 1 Corinthians 16.1-4, 2 Corinthians 8.11-12), to support the ministry of the local church to which we belong, and to support other churches and missionary work elsewhere. We teach on that once a year in January, in what we call our Giving Review. And throughout the year, information is available on the Giving Desk at the back of the building. The fourth area for using our wealth is: paying our taxes. Romans 13 says:

The authorities that exist have been established by God... Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities... This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants who give their full time to governing. (See Romans 13.1-7, in full.)

That doesn't mean they're necessarily Christians; mostly they're not, and may be doing quite unChristian things. But conscious of it or not, they do serve God's purposes of not letting this fallen world become hell on earth. (Because by God's grace, hell is future, and not yet).And we're to pay them. Four areas: our needs/responsibilities; the poor; the ministry of the gospel; taxes. Now over taxes, we have no choice. But over giving to the poor and the ministry of the gospel we do have choice, and how much we have available to give will depend how much goes on that first area, of our needs. Which in turn depends on how we define needs and luxuries and where we peg our standard of living. John Laing, the founder of the construction company, began with a family business in Cumbria. As a Christian, from the start of his career, he decided to peg his income for life at a level that covered his needs modestly. It only rose with inflation. And he served God with the excess income - from helping the families of poverty-trapped employees to huge financial support of the Christian Union movement. The company was worth millions when he died. But his personal will contained about £400. He spent and saved to cover his needs. The rest, he invested in heaven. So, that's the first thing: serve God with your wealth, not wealth as your god. And there's only one sure way to know that wealth is not our god. And that's the ability to share it, to lend it, and to give it away. Secondly, TRUST GOD FOR YOUR NEEDS, RATHER THAN MAKING YOUR NEEDS YOUR GOD (vv25-34) The second problem is: not having wealth. Or thinking we haven't got enough. It's the issue of anxiety. And notice how verse 25 links back to verses 19-24: 'Therefore.' You see, imagine we actually began to obey verses 19-24 seriously. Wouldn't it feel risky? Wouldn't it leave us with less of that financial security blanket beneath which we curl up so snugly? Who would look after us and make us feel secure if not the great god Money? Real obedience, like John Laing's obedience, is quite worrying. Verse 25:

Therefore, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father fees them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? (vv25-30) Jesus is not saying we don't need to seek to work for a living. His point is this. As the subhuman creation 'does its bit' - whether it's looking for worms or photosynthesising - God provides what it needs for life. So long as God wants a sparrow to stay alive, he'll provide what it needs. So the child of God should say: 'How much more, so long as my heavenly Father wants me - his child - to stay on this earth, will he provide what I need.' Not what I want; or what the world says I've got to have. But what I actually need. Jesus is not saying we don't need to work. Nor is he saying we should be happy-go-lucky, carefree and irresponsible. There is a right concern for the welfare of our dependants, of others - and of ourselves, for that matter. What Jesus is saying 'No' to is: anxious worry. The common sense reason for that is in verse 27. Worrying is useless. It achieves nothing, except to rob us of the time and energy we spend doing it. But the deeper reason is in verses 26 and 30. Anxiety is a sign that we're not actively trusting God as our heavenly Father. For example, even once we've chosen how to save, or what pension to take out, or whatever, we still worry. 'Will it be enough? Is my job secure? Will the house depreciate? How long will I need to support the children?' And the answer is 'I don't know.' 'I can't know.' But I have a heavenly Father who does know and does care. I remember catching a plane from Heathrow terminal 1 a few years ago. There's an enormously long travelator from the departure lounge to the plane - one of those moving walkways. You just stand there, and it carries you. And half way along my suitcases were getting to feel really heavy, and I found myself thinking, 'I wish this thing would move a bit faster - my arms are dropping off.' It hadn't occurred to me that the sensible thing was to put the cases down and let the travelator carry them for me. And the Lord has often reminded me of that by way of illustration. All the time in life, our loving heavenly Father is carrying us along, precisely sovereign over all our circumstances: how much we're earning, when we're employed or made redundant, how our savings are doing, and all unforeseen circumstances. All the time, he's carrying us along, taking responsibility for our welfare. Yet, so much of the time, we stand there carrying burdens of worry, unnecessarily and uselessly, rather than putting them down on the Lord, by faith, and in daily prayer (see Matthew 6.11, 1 Peter 5.7).

So [says Jesus, v31:] do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [that is, needs, not luxuries] will be given to you as well.' (vv31-33)

If we have a heavenly Father whose priority is looking out for our interests (and we do), then we can get on and make it our priority to seek first his interests - not least, with our wealth. Which brings us full circle. What should be our attitude to wealth? Well, firstly says Jesus: Serve God with your wealth, not wealth as your god. And the more we do that, the more we give, the more we share, the more we need to hear that second thing he says: Trust God for your needs, rather than making needs your god. And the greatest assurance that God will meet our needs is found at the cross. That is where our Father met our greatest need - of forgiveness - with his greatest gift - his Son dying for us under the punishment our sins deserved. So that the apostle Paul could write this:

He who did not spare is own Son, but gave him up for us all - how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8.32)

Not 'all things' we'd like this side of heaven. But everything we need.

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